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Politics & Government

Democratic Lawmakers In Texas Have Left The State To Try To Block Voting Restrictions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Texas now, where the fight over voting rights took another dramatic turn today. Democratic lawmakers there have now left the state. It's an effort to block a Republican measure that would enact new voting restrictions, and it is the second move Democrats have made to try to derail this legislation. Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider joins us now from Texas.

Hey, Andrew.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: OK, so what happened today?

SCHNEIDER: Republicans control the state government, so the Democrats did what they thought was the only thing they could do to block the GOP voting legislation. They broke quorum, and they took a chartered flight to Washington, D.C., to once again try to drum up support for federal voting protections. Texas House Democratic leaders say that they, quote, "refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans' freedom to vote."

As you just said, this is a bit of a repeat. At the end of the regular legislative session earlier this year, Democrats staged an 11th-hour walkout to deny quorum to the Republicans, killing a voting bill that would have essentially done the same thing as the bills now under consideration. But that was always a temporary win for Democrats. Governor Abbott vetoed funding for the legislature to punish Democrats. Then, he called a special session to finish some business, including an election bill, which led to today's action.

KELLY: Yeah. And what happens now? Do we know what the plan is? Are these Democrats just going to stay away from Texas for - I don't know - how long?

SCHNEIDER: One of the things we don't know is how long they'll stay away. This special session lasts through the beginning of August, so if they return before then, they're essentially back to square one. And the thing is, under the Texas Constitution, if they're anywhere in the state while the special session is in force, they can be arrested and physically brought back to the Capitol to provide a quorum.

Governor Abbott released a statement blasting their move, meanwhile House Speaker Dade Phelan pointed out that by not returning, they're making it impossible for the legislator to vote on restoring its own funding, which would penalize some 2,100 full-time government employees that support the Texas Capitol and would bring the state government to a screeching halt.

And all of this recalls a time 18 years ago when Democrats left the state in order to block a controversial Republican redistricting effort. Then-Governor Rick Perry kept calling multiple special sessions. Eventually, one of the Democratic senators returned, allowing the legislature to proceed.

KELLY: Can I back us up and just talk about what is at stake here, the substance of the legislation that Democrats are objecting to? What would it do?

SCHNEIDER: Sure. It would toughen voting laws in Texas, which already has some of the toughest voting laws in the country. Among other measures, it would ban drive-through voting and 24-hour voting. It would make mail-in voting more difficult. It would give partisan poll watchers more authority at voting sites, and it would increase criminal penalties for voting mistakes. That provision garnered additional attention after the arrest last week of a Houston man, Hervis Rogers, for (inaudible).

KELLY: Andrew, are you still with us? Blip in the line there.

All right, we'll try to get him back. That is Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider updating us on the news today that Democrats have left the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF PECAS SONG, "T-SHIRT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.